Final Reflection: Musings of a journal maker

Love and Hate

I loved the balance and the scoping of the class. As I was discussing with Christina one day after class, many classes at Stanford try to be over ambitious in their scope to the point of zero retention for the student. I felt much more in touch with the weekly material, could do most of the readings, and spend time on the coursework. I ended up focusing on learning instead of just ticking off checkboxes in the course. This will remain one of my favorite courses at Stanford. 

What worked

I loved the group discussions that we started having from week 4 onwards. The model with the small group discussion on a specific topic, followed by a larger group sharing session, was particularly more effective than just small group discussions. 

Sketchnoting was fun to get comfortable with doodling or overcoming a fear of not being an artist but it did not particularly help me retain information much. I prefer taking bullet notes as I read and then create a mental summary or hierarchy of information. I noticed that I was spending too much time making the sketchnotes pretty and thinking less about the material at one point. This might be a personal preference. 

Tools that I will use more often

I think the emphasis on checking assumptions fast and frugally was great. In a world dominated by blind metrics, the reframing of qualitative data being important for brainstorming was refreshing. I walk away with a much better appreciation of qualitative data than before. I will definitely use assumption testing again. However, I wonder if timing and scale are important for better assumption testing. Firstly, because if a feature is sufficiently novel (e.g. the iPhone), early testers might not signal a half baked prototype of it as valuable. Similarly, we tested on very few users which may be inconclusive for some assumptions. 

The need for quick and fast feedback was much appreciated too. It’s remarkable how many cool ideas emerge in a culture where people give each other feedback. I think my ability to give and accept feedback improved a lot. I always start with a compliment before suggesting constructive criticism now. 

A major surprise for me was how much I learned from other team’s work/demos. In most CS classes, we work in silos and do not present the process of our work. The pivots, the iterations, the change in thought and design, all of it was both illuminating and inspirational. Some CS classes made different teams give peer feedback on each other, which was an effective model as well. 

 

Our Project

We were debating a few different journaling ideas before we settled on gratitude journaling. Two major challenges we zoomed in were retaining users and creating a shareable journal. For retention, we focused on reducing cognitive overload and friction over adding tons of features. In our diary studies, we noticed the repetitive desire for users to accomplish their goals not necessarily in the best way but in the easiest, fastest, and simplest way. For a social feature, we thought of turning mundane journals into pretty cards. Just infusing an element of art to this made people appreciate journal entries more. This led to the revelation that many people want to share their journals to their social circles but do not do it because their handwriting is not necessarily presentable. So, the presentation of the journal mattered to them. 

Something unresolved for the project is how to give better long term insights to the user. THis was the motivation behind tracking mood – so that we could either create a recap/summary of wins, struggles, and happiness, but we got bogged down by the quantification and the ethics of an AI/automated system dictating what this may look like. 

 

The class and the self

This class helped me take up a habit of journaling! I never planned on it. Honestly, I have always thought of journaling or meditation as overrated. This feeling is similar to the saying, “To understand recursion, you must first understand recursion.” The point being, I did notice that I felt more in control of my life as I was journaling more regularly. Another observation was that I was overly stimulated by information. I hacked every small part of my life into a content consumption machine. Walking? Podcasts. Cooking? Audiobooks. Free for two hours? Emails and job applications. Studying habits and behavior change  somehow made me appreciate that I just have to do the fundamentals of life consistently everyday but that included resting, doing nothing for a while consistently too. 

I am a CS major but I am trying to take many design thinking and HCI classes. I am mostly considering PM but I think eventually I want to be an Engineering Manager or a serial entrepreneur. This class fits into the wider vision of learning about tech holistically.

Suggestions

If I had to suggest any changes to the class, I would say maybe having a glossary of concepts/items introduced. One might build new items to the glossary weekly or just give everything on day 1. In some conversations with others, we shared that we were seeing a lot of concepts/definitions but struggled to understand how to execute them. For instance, a ‘multivariate test’ was mentioned multiple times in week 2 but I was confused what is such a test but more importantly how to launch one. 

 

A scenario based coursework might be very interesting too. Like doing cases. Give a real life project from a company like Amazon. Make a group of three decide on what to do or build/design something to solve that issue. 

 

Giving student groups credits for MTurk or Survey Monkey studies might be interesting too! It could teach us how to collect data for HCI research groups and maybe we would get better insights on likert scales or other quantitative metrics. 

 

Ethical consideration

 In ten years, I will surely remember the aha moment when someone said that tech companies treat early adopters like lab rats. And some features become sticky and stay in the mainstream even when they are demonstrably bad for society. 

In our project, we nudge the user to journal with reminders and streaks. There is informed consent with this because by setting reminders, the user expresses an interest to be nudged into writing journals. 

We do intend to store the user’s journal entries but do not have a feed that shares their information without their consent. I was reading abotu the launch of newsfeed which broadcasted sensitive information like if a queer user was attending a pride parade without their consent. Luckily, we automatically avoid those issues. If we hadn’t store the data, we wouldn’t be able to provide a cross platform experience backed by cloud storage. So, we chose to still store user data but not sell it. 

Our project does not do a great job on universal design beyond keeping most features gender or personal information neutral. For accessibility, we thought of integrating speech-to-text features or screen readers extensively but due to the limitations of time, those were not as robust as normal features. It is kind of crazy that a bachelors in CS does not compel a student to take classes on accessibility, frugal innovation, ethics. No wonder all of us end up making fringe toys for rich people. 

Finally, in terms of wellbeing, I think our project was intentional in choosing something that can improve the mental health of users. This was an important consideration right from the first week and we decided to take the additional challenge of redesigning an age old concept : gratitude journaling. It was fun to take on that challenge of thinking in new ways about an old problem. 

 

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About the author

Hi, I'm Srijon, a third year computer science student at Stanford who loves reading, watching cricket, and making things!